For the first time, Justice and Security has analyzed the criminal files of slurry fraudsters, according to an unpublished study by the ministry. In this way, the department tries to better understand the extent of slurry fraud in the Netherlands. What has in any case been noticed: the chance of being caught by fraudsters is low.
The five most important discoveries.
1. Netherlands manure
The Netherlands is a big boy in Europe when it comes to manure. It produces around 75 billion kilos per year, mainly from breeders who supply the Dutch and foreign markets with dairy products, meat and eggs. It is too much manure for the pastures of the farmers themselves, but also for the farmers who take back part of it. Manure contains nutrients for plants and vegetables, including nitrogen and phosphate. However, these substances also affect the quality of ground and surface water, as well as nature reserves. Therefore, not all manure can be “spread” on the land.
National standards must protect the environment from excessive use of manure. Part of the surplus is therefore removed, processed and transformed into other materials, or destroyed. The farmer himself is responsible for this process and strict rules apply. For example, farmers need to keep a fertilizer account and be able to show tickets when they dispose of the material.
In about fifteen years, the police and the Dutch Food and Consumer Safety Authority have submitted more than three hundred criminal cases concerning manure fraud to the public prosecutor. The investigation does not reveal how many people have been convicted.
Manure fraud comes in many forms. Farmers alter the systems of their stables which make it appear that they emit less harmful substances. In addition, they falsify transport tickets and their own fertilizer accounts. This gives the impression that the farmers are properly selling their surplus manure and having it spread elsewhere, but in reality, they are spreading the manure on their own land and thus violating the rules of nature. There are also farmers who have more animals in their barns than they bought the rights. As a result, they produce and earn more, but because they are raising more animals, they also emit more toxic substances. At the same time, they save money on purchasing the rights. Criminal investigations in the poultry sector (chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys) show that some breeders keep tens of thousands of animals more than they declare.
Read also : Manure fraud is ubiquitous in the Netherlands, but barely detected
The ministerial investigation is a “first estimate of the minimum extent of manure fraud”. What is the real extent of the fraud? It’s impossible to say. Most criminal investigations focus primarily on counterfeiting, researchers say. Moreover, in order to prove criminal offenses, they write, it is “not always relevant to know how many kilograms of manure have been fraudulently used”.
That these amounts can be staggering emerges from an analysis of 21 criminal cases cited by the Justice and Security investigation. In these files, it turns out that a total of 185 million kilograms of manure was entered “not or incorrectly” in the manure accounting. It smells of fraud. The financial benefit for those involved in these 21 studies was almost 23 million euros.
4. Environment and other damage
The damage to the environment is difficult to measure. This is mainly because after a criminal investigation it is often not yet clear where the manure has been dumped. As a result, the effects cannot be quantified.
What can be calculated is the environmental damage caused by keeping more animals than is allowed, which is called “production rights overrun”. The researchers specifically looked at ammonia emissions near Natura 2000 protected areas caused by these additional animals. The ecological effects were found to be greatest in the Natura 2000 area of Ulvenhoutse Bos, south-east of Breda. Reducing the herd to the permitted number of animals would have roughly the same effect as the national speed reduction from 130 to 100 kilometers per hour, which was implemented in March 2020.
The damage is not limited to the environment; fraud undermines all Dutch manure policy. For example, the Central Bureau of Statistics receives incorrect data on manure. And this data is used for the policy to be pursued. “This means that the effectiveness of the manure policy cannot be properly monitored.”
Read our 2017 research article on manure fraud here: The manure conspiracy
Investigations focus too much on one element of fraud, the researchers conclude: document forgery. It is necessary to know where the manure is dumped. This makes it easier to calculate the extent of environmental damage.
They also advocate a national registration of farmers who break the rules. Researchers see a role for the 29 regional environmental services which, among other things, control the use of environmental permits. They spend a lot of time in the countryside and check whether the farmers have the right papers.
The additional manpower for the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority is not a luxury either. In 2019, the service represented around 950,000 manure transports. Of these, 821 were checked: 0.09%. In addition, the data research should provide a better understanding in the years to come which companies are at high risk of fraud.
The researchers stress that not only should the enforcement of fertilizer rules be stepped up, but attention should also be paid to “the underlying causes of manure fraud”. We don’t know exactly what they mean by that. They may wonder whether the role of the Netherlands as the world’s third largest exporter of agricultural products is sustainable.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of June 29, 2021